Conversation: Jean Smith’s New Biography of General Ulysses S. Grant

May 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Grant” by Jean Edward Smith. It’s a biography of the battlefield leader of the Union Army in the Civil War and 18th President of the United States. Well, a big piece of work. Certainly by the time it’s finished I’m sure Grant possesses you as much as you possess him. What got you started on Ulysses Grant?

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Grant has always been a hero, really, to me. But I was in Canada for 35 years at the University of Toronto. And when you come to the United States from abroad, you recognize how fragile it was at various times and how close it came to coming apart. Grant was a hero because I think he saved the union. He saved the United States during the war. And during his time in the White House, he really helped the United States to regain stability after eight years of war and upheaval. And then in 1876, he shepherded the nation through the Hayes/Tilden crisis. I think Grant played a great… A heroic role during the war and a stabilizing role afterwards.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s easy to forget just what a mess the country was in 1868 after a terribly divisive fractious time under Andrew Johnson following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Did you have a chance to rehabilitate Grant politically?

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Well, I think the record speaks for itself. I think that Grant deserves rehabilitation. Grant really, during the reconstruction period, was one of the most powerful men in Washington, Andrew Johnson notwithstanding. And Grant pushed reconstruction in the South. Grant sought to secure the rights of African Americans, rights that they had been Granted under the Constitution against great opposition. And he continued to do that in the White House, he continued to fight on behalf of native Americans. It’s a much different figure from the one he’s commonly depicted as.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet we frequently turn to historians polls to talk about Presidents and their standing in history, and Ulysses Grant has not fared well, certainly in the last 100 years. Why is that?

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: During his lifetime, Grant was revered, elected twice with overwhelming majority, the only President between Jackson and Wilson to serve two full terms in the White House consecutively. Grant’s been trashed, I think, because of what he stood for. He stood for equal rights for African Americans, he pressed rights for African Americans during the reconstruction period. In the 1880s, that was no longer popular. And history, from the 1880s on, was written by, largely, by white supremacist historians, lost cause historians, and Grant was made into a villain as reconstruction was made into a villain.

RAY SUAREZ: But people who aren’t even aware of, let’s say, the southern power in story telling and the southern power in telling America’s history, would caricature Grant as the drunken leader of a very corrupt administration.

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Grant didn’t look like a President any more than he looked like a general. But it was a little difficult to argue people’s… the first time the Civil War wrote him off as well. It’s difficult to argue with Fort Donaldson and Shiloh and Vicksburg and Appomattox. I think Grant can demonstrate his ability, beyond doubt. Presidential accomplishment, political accomplishment is more ambiguous, and there’s always room to disagree as to what constitutes political success. I think that’s part of it. I think also, a little like during the Eisenhower administration, American intellectuals, Eastern intellectuals couldn’t quite accept a man has rough hewn as Grant as being on top of the presidency.

RAY SUAREZ: It was also remarkable in reading your book to realize just how low his fortunes had gotten, and just how obscure he had become before an almost lightening march to the head of the Union Army.

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Well, that’s wonderful, yes. Grant, for seven years after he was resigned from the Army in 1854, was in the wilderness. He was fighting a losing battle against poverty. He was reduced to selling firewood on street corners in St. Louis. Eventually he took a job with his father as a clerk in a leather goods store run by the family in Galena, Illinois, actually run by his two younger brothers. That’s about as low as Grant could sink, I think, and that’s what he was doing when Wargard fired on Fort Sumter.

RAY SUAREZ: Then within a few years, a really remarkably short period of time, he is a hero to Abraham Lincoln, who is wondering what his other generals can learn from Ulysses Grant.

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Within the year, really. The union needed victories, and Grant provided one at Belmont, but then he provided a major one at Fort Donaldson. He captured the deteriorating… He moved into a deteriorating situation– his right flank had been turned– and he attacked. Captured Fort Donaldson, and his marvelous demand of unconditional surrender captured the nation’s attention. That was the first major union victory of the war. And after Fort Donaldson came Shiloh; and then the marvelous campaign, the incredible campaign against Vicksburg, when Grant cut himself loose from the supply base in Memphis, crossed the Mississippi River below Vicksburg, lived off the land and attacked Vicksburg from the East, surrendering on July 4, 1873. It was a marvelous achievement.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the detractors of Ulysses Grant’s generalship say that one of the reasons he could do that was because he came from a large and populous country. He could spend men’s lives with great abandon, and then always be sure that he could be resupplied.

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Vicksburg is a great example of Grant using maneuver, of Grant taking an unprecedented risk of cutting himself off from his supply base, moving south of Vicksburg, and maneuvering so that he didn’t have to assault Vicksburg frontally. He tried to assault Vicksburg… He’d sent Sherman to assault Vicksburg frontally earlier and Sherman had been repulsed. Grant couldn’t capture Vicksburg unless he somehow maneuvered to attack it from its weak side, which he did. In the Virginia campaign in ’64 and ’65, Grant continually pressed Lee and continually moved to his left. His casualty ratio was smaller than Lee’s throughout the campaign. And then he crossed the James river. I don’t know if you’ve seen the James River where Grant crossed, but it’s an enormously wide river, tidal river. Lee had no idea where Grant was, and Grant was marching on Richmond from the South.

RAY SUAREZ: It is hard to imagine someone this modest, this unassuming, self effacing, being either a major military leader today or the leader of the country.

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Grant was very understated. And it is… It is difficult to imagine. He was very single-minded and had enormous confidence in himself. And it really took the war for that to be given the opportunity to blossom. If the war hadn’t come along, Grant would have finished his life as a small businessman in Galena, Illinois.

RAY SUAREZ: But he didn’t want to run for President. He didn’t seem to want to campaign very heavily for advancement in the military. When the honors came, he took them, but not really in a self- seeking kind of way from your story.

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Well, that… I think that’s exactly right. Grant didn’t campaign. In 1872, the Republican Party– he was running for his second term– the Republican Party was concerned because he wasn’t campaigning. They thought Horace Greeley was going to win, and Grant told them only two people have campaigned for the presidency before him and both of them have lost. And so he wiped Greeley out when the votes were counted, and he sat in the White House the whole time.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Grant.” Jean Edward Smith, thanks for being with us.

JEAN EDWARD SMITH: Thank you very much.